A young German woman learns the past is not as black-and-white as she thought in “The Dead and the Living,” another offshoot from the I-don’t-know-what-my-family-did-during-the-war tradition. Less eye-catching than Barbara Albert’s previous work, this is an efficient if dramatically monotonous tale of a twentysomething’s journey into her family’s past. Nevertheless, the pic explores Germany’s guilt-ridden relationship with its own history with an engaging directness and simplicity that seems calculated to enlighten younger auds. “Dead” will live on in tube and fest slots, but also has real educational value.
The Dead and the Living
Twenty-five-year-old Austro-Rumanian Sita (Anna Fischer, who looks younger) is a TV production assistant and student. After attending the 95th birthday party of her grandfather (Hanns Schussnig), she finds a torn-up photo of him in SS uniform, and is dismissively told by her father (August Zirner) that the old man only went to a “training camp” during the war. However, further inquiries show there was no such camp.
After starting a relationship with Israeli Jocquin (Itay Tiran) — the script not always subtly picks up the available connections between past and present — Sita starts a journey that will take her to Vienna and Warsaw, where she befriends environmental activist Silver (Daniela Sea). Continuing her research despite the protestations of her father, Sita ends up in Auschwitz, where she learns her grandfather was in fact an SS lieutenant colonel.
Dramatically, the pic is pretty thin. Sita’s on/off relationship with Jocquin is driven by ideas rather than drama, and there’s only so much mileage to be had from watching someone anxiously visiting research centers. The film’s subsequent developments also make it that much harder to believe that such a bright, inquisitive person as Sita would have taken so long to find the truth.
The script strains too obviously for significance, as when the small holes in Sita’s ventricles are meant to suggest she literally has a broken heart. That said, Albert’s script at least complicates the simple “Nazis bad/everyone else good” dichotomy by supplying enough historical context: This family, like the helmer’s own, has Transylvanian roots, and historical forces meant that the Transylvanian Saxons were both perpetrators and victims during the war. All this is explored via a thought-provoking monologue movingly played by Schussnig.
Perfs are strong throughout, with Fischer doing good work as a fundamentally fragile young woman out of her depth. Often-handheld lensing and an edgy soundtrack combine to suggest the protag’s restless energy.